The Republican front-runner is a man whose signature move is firing people who can’t cut it in his business. His campaign is built on building a wall to keep the foreigners out, and insulting all of his opponents, both political and in the media, as losers. Donald Trump is mean guy. [Bernie Sanders, for what it’s worth, is also a nasty old crank, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt his popularity in the least.]
For years, the mantra of Republicans was “don’t anger the independents.” Republican politicians and their army of consultants said, “The voters think Republicans are mean, you have to show them your softer side,” and “You have to be a happy warrior with a sunny disposition, like Ronald Reagan.” and “You have to be an optimist, like Ronald Reagan.” The hope and optimism of Reagan — and not his actual policies — were what the consultants taught and the politicians lapped up. And the failure of happy optimism has gob-smacked Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. They haven’t figured out yet that “happy optimism” is out of touch with the mood of the electorate.
America was a very different place when Ronald Reagan in 1980. For one data point, see what the most popular TV shows of 1980 were. “The Love Boat.” “Little House on the Prairie.” “The Dukes of Hazzard.” (And, OK, “Dallas.”); shows where every dilemma and plot complication was resolved ultimately in a happy ending. Simplistic, yes, but indicative of a widespread belief that problems were ultimately solvable.
The most popular shows recent history? “The Walking Dead” – grim, post-apocalyptic drama that kills off major characters willy-nilly and little girls get shot in the back of the head. (And the character that shoots her gets even more popular.) Also, “Survivor” — a reality show where people screw each other over to win money. The public has embraced grim television dramas where life is nasty, brutish, and short, there are no solutions, and only the ruthless survive. And every time an old movie or an old show is “re-imagined,” it’s made into something “gritty,” and “dark.” Old America was “Batman.” New America is “Gotham.”
The cultural zeitgeist is an angry one; not a happy one. A politician who preaches that everything is great and all we need are a few tax cuts to make it even better looks like a fool.
For decades, Americans who have been angry about illegal immigration, runaway Government, welfare systems that pay more than honest work, jobs exported to foreign countries, and all the things have been told “Your anger is not valid” by the political and media elites; who expected the anger would dry up like a raisin in the sun if the voters were lectured strongly enough about the glories of multiculturalism, global competitiveness, and social justice. It looks like it isn’t working out that way.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both campaigning on the message that, “Your anger is valid. Times are tough, and you need a tough guy willing to bust some heads to fix things.” It may be just a marketing ploy, but it seems to be selling better than the happy-talk optimism Republican operatives have been preaching lo these past decades.